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Q&A on The Antifragility Edge: Antifragility in Practice

| Posted by Ben Linders on Jan 14, 2017. Estimated reading time: 10 minutes |

Key Takeaways

  • Learn how to differentiate between agility and antifragility.
  • Recognize how conversations, relationships, and behaviors foster individual antifragility.
  • Recognize how groups that work with dysfunction and conflict foster collective antifragility.
  • Recognize how more short-lived temporary groups (teams via teaming) and more long-lived permanent groups (communities) foster collective antifragility.
  • Recognize how independence and interdependence foster enterprise antifragility.

In the book The Antifragility Edge Sinan Si Alhir shows how antifragility has been applied to help organizations evolve and thrive. He provides examples of how antifragility can be used beyond agility on an individual, collective (team and community) and enterprise level, and explores a roadmap for businesses to achieve greater antifragility.

InfoQ interviewed Sinan Si Alhir, entrepreneur, author and coach/consultant, about how people can achieve individual antifragility, how antifragility can be used by teams and how antifragility can be used at the enterprise level, why teams should be short-lived along with more long-lived and permanent communities to become more antifragile, and what coaches can do if they want their teams to be more antifragile.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Alhir: Historically, organizations have predominately focused on “change”, but now, reality demands that organizations focus on “disruption”. The world has become far too turbulent for organizations to merely “manage change” or “embrace change” but now require organizations to “work with disruption” or “embrace disruption” (or even more so, “embrace chaos”).

Fundamentally, this is a paradigm shift from the “age of change” and agility to the “age of disruption” and antifragility, a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. As background, I encourage readers to explore other interviews related to antifragility, including Q&A on Exploring the Practice of Antifragility (Jan-2016), Q&A on Conscious Agility (Mar-2015), and Going Beyond Agility with Antifragility (Feb-2015).

Generally, the “age of change” equates normalcy with equilibrium --- balancing various forces towards stability, certainty, simplicity, and clarity (SCSC) --- and embracing change, disturbances and deviations. The “age of disruption” equates normalcy with turbulence --- volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) --- and embracing disruption, more VUCA.

Because agility is more about adapting and responding to and not necessarily gaining from change, we don’t merely seek change to adapt. Thus, agility generally equates normalcy with a degree of equilibrium --- stability, certainty, simplicity, and clarity (SCSC) --- and embracing a degree of change. From an agility perspective, we may consider what we need in order to preserve a degree of equilibrium and be open to a degree of change.

Because antifragility is more about evolving and gaining from and not merely responding to disruption, we seek disruption to evolve. Thus, antifragility equates normalcy with a degree of turbulence --- volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity--- and embracing a degree of disruption, more VUCA. From an antifragility perspective, we may consider what we need to preserve a degree of turbulence and seek a degree of disruption.

For almost two decades, the Agile community has focused on adopting, sustaining, and generally embracing foundational agility (Scrum, XP, Lean, Kanban, etc.) and scaling agility (Disciplined Agile Delivery or DAD, Large Scale Scrum or LeSS, Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe, etc.) while, perhaps unintentionally, disseminating fragility by predominately over focusing on “change” and not confronting “disruption”, or perhaps what might be called the “change-disruption blind spot”, the mindset and perspective that focusing on “change” empowers us to confront “disruption”.

Now, many practitioners are embracing DevOps, continuous delivery, microservices, and chaos engineering, among other approaches, to advance towards the “age of disruption”. But more broadly, how do we advance business and technology in partnership from “embracing change” to “embracing disruption”?

As agility focuses on change, antifragility focuses on disorder. Agility involves embracing change by confronting and responding to reality while adapting and surviving. Antifragility involves embracing disorder/disruption/randomness/chaos by embracing and gaining from reality while evolving and thriving.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Alhir: This book is intended for business and technology professionals --- leaders (at every level, senior, middle, and line level), managers, team members, entrepreneurs, change agents, coaches, and consultants --- who must confront disruption (beyond mere change) and who are interested in the emerging post-agile/agility paradigm and practice of antifragility. Fundamentally, this book is for anyone interested in applying Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work to individuals, collectives (teams and communities), and enterprises.

Taleb elaborates his thoughts using the “Triad” and the “Map of the World”. The Triad classifies things into the categories of fragile, robust, and antifragile. The Map of the World organizes subjects in relation to the Triad. Thus, an item, within a given subject, may be categorized and we can consider what we need to do to change its condition.

For example, in the subject of economic life, Taleb suggests that bureaucrats are fragile and entrepreneurs are antifragile. For a specific individual, we can categorize the individual, and consider what we need to do to help the individual get the characteristics of the latter category and become more antifragile.

Together, Taleb’s Triad and Map of the World integrate the various aspects of antifragility around the notion of parts (individuals) progressively (collectives) forming wholes (enterprises). Broadly and deeply exploring Taleb’s Triad and Map of the World leads to the notion that an antifragile enterprise consists of stakeholders who embrace reality and do not merely confront it, and stakeholders who ensure their aliveness by evolving form reality and not merely adapting to it. An antifragile enterprise is completely dynamic, at all levels and in every way. This is the essence of antifragility --- a delicate dance between embracing reality and ensuring aliveness.

Generally, embracing reality involves entrepreneurs who experiment with options to confront disorder. They are always exploring and seeking opportunities to enable them to thrive; when they encounter disorder and sufficiently and reasonably struggle (that is, experience sufficient and reasonable degrees of stress), they consider their options and experiment, making small and reversible errors that cause acute stress, distributed over time, with ample recovery time, to enable them to learn and grow.

Generally, ensuring aliveness involves adventurers who are small, non-specialized, and independent. They are always exploring and seeking experiences from which to evolve; individually, they don’t specialize and are very independent, and, collectively, they don’t compromise by specializing or becoming dependent, instead becoming redundant and sharing power.

Antifragility is beyond agility. Agility and antifragility are distinct paradigms, each with a unique mindset, worldview, values, principles, practices, and techniques. The essence of antifragility is a delicate dance --- at the antifragility edge ---  between embracing reality and ensuring aliveness, where disorder or stress is at the intersection.

InfoQ: How can people achieve individual antifragility?

Alhir: Individuals embrace reality and ensure their aliveness via their mindsets, questions, leadership, conversations, relationships, and behaviors, which are further explored in the book.

For example, consider an individual with a tendency to use various types of conversations, various types of relationships, and a variety of behaviors. When some of their initiatives were challenged, we worked together to explore the initiatives, challenges, and situations as well as their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. First, we focused on those strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that could be addressed with minimal stress while accomplishing what needed to be achieved. Next, I coached them to focus on those strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that involved progressively more stressful conversations, relationships, and behaviors while accomplishing what needed to be achieved. This included maturing conversations, relationships, and behaviors to explore options, perform experiments, foster redundancy, and distribute power while being more independent. As I stressed them, they began to grow and become more antifragile.

InfoQ: How can teams achieve antifragility?

Alhir: Collectives embrace reality and ensure their aliveness as groups that work with dysfunction and conflict while organizing into more short-lived and more temporary groups (teams via teaming) as well as more long-lived and more permanent groups (communities).

For example, consider a collective that is developing as a team or community, working with dysfunction, and working with conflict. When some of the collective’s initiatives were challenged, we worked together to explore strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats by first focusing on developing the collective’s observations, orientation, decisions, and actions using minimal stress, and then progressively more stress to confront group dysfunction and conflict. More specifically, we used stress to confront how the collective experienced an absence of trust and a fear of conflict as well as a lack of commitment, avoiding accountability, and not paying attention to results. This included how teams and communities work with dysfunction and conflict to explore options and perform experiments as well as foster redundancy and distribute power, which often makes individuals dependent on one another. This also included how teams explore options and perform experiments, and seek opportunities and thrive as well as how communities foster redundancy and distribute power, and seek experiences and evolve. As I stressed the collective, the collective began to grow and become more antifragile.

InfoQ: How can antifragility look at the enterprise level?

Alhir: Enterprises, composed of individuals and collectives, embrace reality and ensure their aliveness through independence and interdependence.

For example, consider an enterprise that is adapting, surviving, evolving, and thriving. When some of the enterprise’s initiatives were challenged, we worked together to explore strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats by first focusing on seizing opportunities, addressing threats and transforming them into opportunities, maximizing strengths, and minimizing weaknesses and transforming them into strengths using minimal stress, and then progressively more stress to confront independence and interdependence among individuals and collectives. More specifically, we used stress to confront how teams and communities innovate versus become stagnant and how the enterprise benefits. In some cases, existing teams were disbanded and new teams formed to seize opportunities, while communities worked to address weaknesses. This included how individuals, teams, and communities mature, be reasonably stable to sustain, and be reasonably unstable to innovate. As I stressed the enterprise, the enterprise began to grow and become more antifragile.

InfoQ: In your book you suggest that teams should be short-lived if you want antifragility. Agile aims to have long-lived stable teams to have better collaboration. Can these two views on teams go together?

Alhir: I’ve often said that teams are one of the most fragile things in the agile world, and the notion of “stable” and “long-lived” teams makes an enterprise more fragile! Alternatively, consider dynamic or fluid teams and communities, which would foster less fragility and more antifragility.

Long-lived stable teams are replaced with more short-lived and more temporary teams (formed through teaming) and more long-lived and more permanent communities. A team is a collective of individuals in pursuit of a common goal. A team is a static entity. Teaming is a dynamic activity. A community is a collective of individuals in pursuit of a common passion. A community is a dynamic entity. Teaming and communities distribute “collaboration” across an enterprise, and teaming and communities distribute fragility caused by long-lived teams across the enterprise so the enterprise becomes more antifragile. The whole notion of “long-lived stable teams” is re-approached through more short-lived and temporary teams (formed through teaming) and more long-lived and permanent communities, which addresses the fragility caused by long-lived stable teams while preserving the benefits of “collaboration”.

InfoQ: What can coaches do if they want their teams to be more antifragile?

Alhir: Rather than focus on helping individuals, teams, and enterprises embrace change and confront dysfunction through transformation, coaches ought to focus on becoming micro-stressors and helping individuals, collectives (teams and communities), and enterprises embrace disruption (and stress) and confront fragility through antifragilization.

Fundamentally, coaches need to become micro-stressors or micro-disruptors who create micro-degrees of VUCA. Micro-stressors apply energy to stress individuals, collectives, and enterprises relative to [1] external forces in order for them to survive, thrive, and embrace reality and [2] internal forces in order for them to adapt, evolve, and ensure their aliveness. Coaches must equate normalcy with a degree of turbulence (VUCA) and coach embracing a degree of disruption rather than equate normalcy with a degree of equilibrium (SCSC) and coach embracing a degree of change.

An agility coach starts with what is needed to preserve a degree of equilibrium and be open to a degree of change. Preserving a degree of equilibrium and being open to a degree of change ensures we continue to adapt and respond.

An antifragility coach starts with what is needed to preserve a degree of turbulence and seek a degree of disruption. Preserving a degree of turbulence and seeking a degree of disruption ensures we continue to evolve and gain.

This is not only a paradigm shift from the “age of change” and agility to the “age of disruption” and antifragility, but a paradigm shift to coaches becoming micro-stressors or micro-disruptors.

About the Author

Si Alhir (Sinan Si Alhir) is an Entrepreneur, Author, Enterprise Business & Technology Transformation Coach, Trainer, Consultant, and Practitioner working with Individuals, Collectives/Communities/Teams, and Enterprises/Organizations. He is a catalyst or alchemist with over four decades of proven experience in appreciating and leveraging all aspects of human dynamics. His clients have ranged from start-ups to the Fortune 500. He is also affiliated with numerous prestigious professional organizations, holds various professional certifications, has authored various books, and contributes to and speaks at professional events. Si can be reached at salhir@antifragilityedge.com. Visit antifragilityedge.com for more.

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